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Will Eisner + National Pastime = Americana Overdose? – Baseball Comics #1

March 12, 2013

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Will Eisner was a living legend in his field, a man who pioneered territory in comic book style and format like few others. Since his passing eight years ago, he’s entered into, like many of his creations, the realm of venerated memory. Is there any doubt that, if there was a Mount Rushmore for the industry, his bald mug would be one of those dynamited out of the granite? After all, The Spirit will stand for all time as an early benchmark for what the superhero genre and comics in general can – and should — be, and if he had rested on that one laurel he’d have more than done his bit for king and country.

Hell, the comic book equivalent of the Academy Awards are named after him. He’s the Cy Young of bound newsprint.

And on that baseball segue, we come to one of Eisner’s most short-lived comics, one largely forgotten because of its blink and miss run: Baseball Comics. With spring training in full bloom, will there ever be a better time to tackle it?

Coming out of Eisner’s studio in 1949, smack dab in the midst of the glorious decade-plus Spirit run, Baseball Comics only lasted one issue before getting the cancellation ax. The underlying reasons behind its one and done termination were a bit of a mystery for Eisner, as detailed in the book’s 1991 Kitchen Sink Press reprint (which is the comic scanned for this post — the cover above is slightly cropped from its original Golden Age size, removing a breeze-tussled pennant from the left side). There was one factor, though, that was all-too clear: it didn’t sell. Sports comics had their share of popularity back in the day, as borne out by the long-running and very successful Joe Palooka. One would expect that this, coupled with Eisner’s style and the then-unquestioned sports supremacy of the National Pastime, would be more than enough to get the book over the hump. No dice, though. It was gone before it ever got a chance to rev up, after the first issue had languished unbought on newsstands.

Eisner, scripting alone and drawing with the help of Tex Blaisdell, tried to replicate that lovable lug Palooka dynamic with the would-be star of this series, Rube Rooky, a simple ice truck driver of Babe Ruthian proportions who could fling a baseball with the best of them. Rooky was backed by a supporting cast of friends and enemies, categories respectively headed up by grizzled manager Pop Flye and evil team owner Lana Lash. Here they are in an early sequence, just after Rube tears apart the big league crew in a spring training exhibition, getting Lash all riled up and Flye fired:

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A note about Pop Flye: Is it coincidence that he shares both physical and syllabic traits with Popeye? Probably not. And you have to love (or not, as it were) his old-timey sexism. AIN’T NO SKIRT GONNA TELL ME WHAT I CAN AND CAN’T DO.

The opening multi-part feature follows the pattern familiar to any number of sports movies, with a young talent’s improbable rise against all odds, one aided by a crusty, curmudgeonly mentor. In this case, the fired Flye forms a team around Rooky to compete in the bigs, complete with characters straight out of central casting:

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If this gives you a Major League vibe, you’re assuredly not alone in picking it up. A team of ne’er do wells united against an evil owner never gets old, whether it’s Eisnerian lines delineating the faces, or whether it’s Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Corbin Bernsen and Wesley Snipes doing the acting honors. But Lana Lash goes a bit beyond the sabotage that the Cleveland Indians owner in that film wrought, delving into Nancy Kerrigan/Tanya Harding kneecapping territory — just check out the phrenologically superb mug on her hired goon:

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Rube triumphs over all comers, winning games and his girl (Sunny — really, what other name?), and sets up future installments that were never to be. The rest of the debut flop was fleshed out by text articles from sports reporters of the day and another real-life feature about an actual game, written and drawn by Jules Feiffer. Decades later, there would be another edition of the Kitchen Sink comic, one which reprinted some more unused material, and then this flicker of Eisner’s imagination once more disappeared into the comics ether.

Since this reprint was published in 1991, the midst of the mutual comic book/baseball card boom, there are of course baseball cards bound into the book (drawn by Eisner and Dan Burr). Get a good look at them now, because I doubt I’ll be circling back around to squeeze a Trading Card Set of the Week out of them. There are four, three of real, mostly forgotten ballplayers (Alvin Dark, Richie Ashburn, and Gene Woodling), and one of the fictional Rooky — collect and trade them with your friends (or something):

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Here’s their stats, should you want to know Rube’s imaginary height and weight (you know, maybe to start up a fictional wing of SABR stat-nerdery):

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And what are we to make of this radar blip from an industry titan? Though the reprint quality is a bit dodgy at times, with washed out colors and lines that at times look to be from third generation photocopies, the quality of Eisner’s composition and art shine through. There’s such vivacity in his character faces, from the somewhat vacant goodness of Rube, to the puffy jowls of Pop (maybe there’s more Poopdeck Pappy in him than Popeye), to the evil seductress look of Lash and the absurdly primitive skull of Her Guy Gillooly. Eisner’s stuff is still oh so readable, so the failure of the book — sales so poor a second issue couldn’t be justified — is hard to peg. I can’t say that I would have gone back week after week to read about an imaginary sports star, but Eisner’s vim might have warranted a second look, at the very least. Oh well.

But there was no joy in Mudville that day — Mighty Eisner had struck out.

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